New Forest musician John Illsley and his induction to the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame

John Illsley (Photo by Judy Totton)

John Illsley (Photo by Judy Totton) - Credit: Archant

We catch up with a New Forest artist, musician and pub owner who has been inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame

The rock myth: John, a teenager, hasn't decided whether to try a career as an artist or as a musician. He hooks up with a guitar genius and becomes the bass player in one of the world's biggest bands. Twenty-five years and many gruelling world tours later, they agree it has all got too much and call it a day.

John settles in the countryside and takes up his painting, sometimes working from his little place in rural Provence. His abstract works, including studies of classic guitars, are exhibited internationally. He buys the local pub near his home, to keep it cosy and traditional and "to have somewhere nice for Sunday lunch". He still keeps his hand in musically, touring modestly with some old bandmates and kindred spirits and recording albums with family members on backing vocals.

This, on the surface, is the very satisfactory life of Dire Straits' former bassman John Illsley. Any seasoned star-watcher will be expecting a 'but': indeed, 10 years ago, in the same year he married his wife Steph, John was diagnosed with leukaemia. After two bouts of chemotherapy, he needed a stem cell transplant. The donor was his sister Pat, who has Parkinson's disease. He has now been well for six years.

This recovery will surely make John's 70th birthday celebrations in June all the sweeter. Expect glasses to be raised at the East End Arms, the pub he owns in East End village in the New Forest. "The pub is an important part of my life and the family's life. My wife loves it," John reveals. "We were there the other day watching the sun going down, chatting with chaps from the local garage." As a good pub owner should, he has left it pretty much the way it was: "apart from tidying up the restaurant a bit, it hasn't been fussed about with."

John moved to the New Forest over 25 years ago, around the time Dire Straits disbanded. A friend invited him down, by chance there was a house nearby for sale, and he jumped at it. "I didn't know the area before, but it is rather special," he says. "The New Forest has a certain magic to it and we are tucked away, so it's pretty quiet which is what I want. We are very close to the coast, which is lovely - it's a different kind of loveliness in the winter, it can get pretty wild but that's lovely too."

Our talk turns to his paintings, which are abstract but have identifiable subjects. I ask how the subjects are chosen. "There will be something in memory, some retained colours or shapes of a place which are inspiring," John muses. "In my own simple way I try to get the essence that means something to me. In a sense, that's the only place you can start. The problem is with abstraction is that there isn't anywhere to stop it, sometimes you have to know when to put the brakes on!" He is inspired by something his Australian artist friend Brett Whiting said to him: 'the role of the painter is not to copy nature but to challenge it.' Nature challenges John too, when he paints in Provence. "It's interesting having a go at that landscape that of course has been painted a million times in a million different ways - that is a challenge. I'm not talking about getting it right, but capturing the feelings from it," he says.

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John's worlds of painting and music merged in 2016, when he, along with Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello, Florence Welch and other music luminaries were invited to contribute a painting to Art in a Corner, an exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of Images of a Woman, the only painting made by all members of the Beatles. The works were all made using materials and a canvas matching those The Beatles used. The paintings were auctioned, with proceeds going to Youth Music and Children and the Arts.

Since Dire Straits, John has released five studio albums and two live albums. His latest, Coming Up for Air, released in March this year, was recorded in his Dire Straits band-mate Mark Knopfler's studio and produced by Straits' keyboard player Guy Fletcher. The sound of Dire Straits, as well as the sparse simplicity of one of their influences, J.J. Cale, is very evident in John's music. "People say my work has a Dire Straits sound to it. I learned from Mark about putting songs together, he was such a fine teacher," he declares. "The bass and the drums, the engine room of the songs, that's what I really know about."

John's most recent tour, in March, also referred to his old band as the songs were augmented by an interview about his musical life and a Q&A with the audience. "A friend of mine with a small club in London asked if I would come and do a Q&A - I said no," John relates. "He persuaded me that if he invited about 100 people, interviewed me and got out slides from the past, it would be fun. I brought a couple of musicians along with me to vary it. It was a chaotic evening, but it was interesting having to resurrect the past and think about it again. I really enjoyed it." John mentioned this unusual show to a booking agent, who suggested a tour. "The audiences seemed to really love it. I had a huge amount of fun doing it, played the classic tracks intermingled with conversation and questions from the audience, so I might do some more in the autumn," he reveals.

John Illsley's next appearance is at the Guitare en Scene festival in Chamonix in July 2019 - unless you try your luck at the East End Arms on a Sunday.


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